It has taken an unusual amount of ink, focus, caffeine and pregame napping to stay on top of all the drama in the N.B.A. this season.
Without a running diary, it would be easy to forget that the Oklahoma City Thunder did not win their first game for 12 days, or that Blake Griffin scored 50 points against Philadelphia, or that Luke Walton’s run with the Los Angeles Lakers as coach once seemed to be in its final days.
Only a fraction of the way through this season, a crew of New York Times sportswriters and friends are ready to reflect.
Here are their early-season takeaways:
The Celtics were supposed to be better than this
By Sopan Deb
The Boston Celtics could have four first-rounders in next year’s draft, from: the Kings (top 1 protected), the Grizzlies (1 to 8 protected) and the Clippers (1 to 14 protected), plus their own. We are almost a quarter of the way through the season. Who would have thought that the Celtics would be on track to end up the highest pick of them all by season’s end?
I’m being hyperbolic. But we’re past the “it’s early” stage to assess the team, and the results are disappointing. Boston lost at home against a terrible Knicks team. Before that, there was a blown double-digit, fourth-quarter lead against a tired Charlotte Hornets team. It’s nothing short of baffling. One of their wins required an unlikely, otherworldly late comeback against an objectively bad Phoenix team. And it’s not like the Celtics are the only team that has had to incorporate players into new roles.
Brad Stevens’s offense moves the ball well (in the top half of the league in assist percentage) and generates open looks with ease. It’s not a lethargy thing, either: The players seem to like playing with one another and for Stevens. And besides, how do you have one of the league’s best defenses without playing hard?
But the open looks just aren’t falling, and neither are the shots around the paint, in the rare instances players actually try to go to the rim. The offense is designed to emphasize the shooting talent of the roster. Everyone has some semblance of a jumper. In today’s N.B.A., this should, in theory, make for a lethal offense. Early on, it was easy to say the bricks were a bug, not a feature. Now you have to wonder if there’s more going on here. Boston shoots under 35 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, well below the league average.
When the open looks have not fallen, Boston has not found alternatives. The Celtics are near the bottom of the league in drives to the rim per game, which you can get away with if the offense is hitting its jumpers, which it’s not. And when the ball finds its way into the paint, in the restricted area, the Celtics shoot 61 percent, also below mediocre.
And then there’s Gordon Hayward, who clearly still needs time. I expected his explosiveness to the rim to need the time, not his 3-point shooting, which is mired at 28 percent. The lesson: Don’t trust all those off-season workout videos you see of players swishing shots.
So those are the worrying signs. The positives? The talent is there. And this is with Kyrie Irving playing some of the best ball of his career. After a slow start, he is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and is top 10 in real plus-minus. Jayson Tatum is pulling out of his slump, shooting 45 percent from the field in November, compared with 40 percent in October. You have to believe that Jaylen Brown is better than the 40 percent he is shooting from the field.
Boston has pulled out some big wins against other Eastern Conference powers: Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. I’m still betting on Boston to go to the N.B.A. finals because Stevens is a master at adjustments and, frankly, in this league, talented players in their prime win. But if the mediocrity continues, I have to wonder if Danny Ainge will end up regretting not moving more aggressively to trade Brown for Kawhi Leonard.
And the biggest positive: Look at all those draft picks next year, if things don’t work out!
California is once again the wild, wild West
By Scott Cacciola
The N.B.A.’s California contingent has gone mad. The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors are dealing with — dare I say it? — some dysfunction. The Los Angeles Lakers and their cast of misfit toys are suddenly surging behind the one and only LeBron James. The Los Angeles Clippers, whom few expected to even vie for a playoff spot, are shaping up as one of the more dangerous teams in the Western Conference. And the Sacramento Kings — well, at least the Kings are still the Kings, reportedly rived by front-office drama.
Out here in California, where I relocated for the season, up is down, left is right and not a whole lot makes sense, starting with the Warriors, whom I visited toward the end of October. At the time, their season was going well, which was no surprise. I wrote about how they were having lots of fun, months removed from a championship season that apparently had its share of behind-the-scenes agita. But they were enjoying themselves again, and get this: Draymond Green said he had made it a goal to stop complaining to the referees so much.
My article did not age well. A kinder, gentler Green proceeded to blow up in Kevin Durant’s face earlier this month, and the fallout has been something to behold. The Warriors have lost a bunch of games. Stephen Curry has been sidelined with an injury. And questions continue to swirl about Durant’s future with the team, with free agency looming this summer.
I think it’s fair to say that no one could have predicted this sort of drama playing out in Oakland. And while I would be shocked to see the Warriors continue to struggle — awesome talent tends to compensate for a multitude of sins — the past couple of weeks have illustrated the fragile nature of team chemistry, even when that team is an established superpower.
Speaking of superpowers, James is doing it again: elevating an odd collection of inexperienced players and reclamation projects into something that resembles a contender, or at least a competitive team. Not so long ago, Rajon Rondo was trying to deck Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets, and Magic Johnson, the team president, was yelling at Coach Luke Walton, raising concerns about Walton’s job security. But the Lakers now look pretty cohesive compared with the Warriors, and who saw that coming?
James, of course, deserves a lot of the credit. Approaching 34 and in his 16th season, he is playing some of the finest basketball of his career.
The Clippers, too, have been exciting to watch. They have ferocious defenders and players who know their roles, and they are going about their business their own way: without a resident superstar, proving there might just be more than one way to win in the modern N.B.A.
Hold off on the hype (i.e., don’t trust the process yet)
By Kevin Draper
It might not work for the Philadelphia 76ers. Jimmy Butler might bolt after the season. He might further erode Markelle Fultz’s confidence. He might not be good enough to be the second-best player on a championship team.
But good for the 76ers for finally pushing their chips into the middle of the table and going for it.
This isn’t an anti-Process rant, or at least not entirely one. It is a plea for a more realistic understanding of the typical development path and of how few young players actually become stars. Every team eventually has a young player whom fans overhype, who is sure to be a star and whom the team refuses to trade.
For Golden State Warriors fans like me, that player was Anthony Randolph, who promised to be a hybrid of Lamar Odom and Kevin Garnett. In six N.B.A. seasons, Randolph started just 43 games and averaged 7.1 points. For Mavericks fans, that player was Rodrigue Beaubois. Declared “untouchable” by Mark Cuban, he lasted four seasons in the league.
Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum — the top three picks in last year’s draft — are all struggling. So is Donovan Mitchell, the rookie of the year runner-up. At the same time, De’Aaron Fox and Zach Collins are impressing after pedestrian rookie seasons.
All of this is to say that young players are tough to evaluate, and the overwhelming majority of them do not become stars. From the 2013 draft there is Giannis Antetokounmpo and maybe Victor Oladipo. From 2014 there is Joel Embiid. From 2015 there are none yet, unless you’re willing to bet the farm on Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis.
If Philadelphia flames out in the playoffs, Butler leaves and Dario Saric turns into a star, the 76ers will look dumb. But the far greater sin is passing on the opportunity to acquire a star in the hope that your young player will develop into one.
Christmas came early this year
By Marc Stein
The cynics will tell you there is little reason to follow the N.B.A. regular season. Not before Christmas, anyway.
As an N.B.A. addict, I love it when the cynics are forced to stuff it.
We’re roughly one-fourth of the way into the 82-game schedule and the Golden State Warriors were on a very mortal 52-win pace entering Friday’s play. They’re hardly running away with things, as so many feared, and there has been a corresponding stream of surprises across the league.
We might have already seen the biggest in-season blockbuster trade we’re going to get with Jimmy Butler’s Nov. 12 move from Minnesota to Philadelphia. We’ve sadly seen Carmelo Anthony’s stint as a Houston Rocket fizzle out faster than could be expected. And we’ve seen an offensive eruption that has quickly generated five 50-point games — and a 60-pointer by Charlotte guard Kemba Walker — after just 10 50-point games total last season.
The big-picture geek in me, meanwhile, can’t stop checking the standings every day — even at this early stage — because of the unforeseen chaos in both conferences.
In the resurgent East: Toronto, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are playing better than Boston, which means the Celtics will not be getting that supposed free pass to the N.B.A. finals. The unexpected battle for a top-four seeding — go ahead and throw the pesky Indiana Pacers into the conversation, too — has hushed the notion that this conference should just cease to exist after LeBron James’s relocation to Hollywood.
Out west, meanwhile, Portland, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers are overachieving, thus offsetting the so-so starts endured by the more established likes of Houston, Utah and San Antonio.
The rules haven’t changed; only eight teams in each conference can advance to the playoffs. But take a look at the ever-deep West ladder and you’ll see only one team of 15 — Phoenix — that can be dismissed as noncompetitive.
How many wins is it going to take to secure a playoff berth in the West? Are we still sure that LeBron’s Lakers will be one of those eight teams? Does the biggest threat to Golden State’s bid for just the sixth three-peat in N.B.A. history — besides the Warriors themselves — reside in the West or the East?
Maybe we’ll be able to offer a clearer forecast on how to answer these nagging questions when we get to the regular-season midpoint in January.
Then again, given the rampant script defiance we’ve seen throughout #thisleague so far, maybe not.
New rule gives sneakerheads their due
By Kelly Whiteside
When the N.B.A. changed its rule before the season allowing players to wear whatever color shoes they want, sneakerheads rejoiced. Six weeks into the season, this is what that the color change has wrought: In the season opener, Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker, the reigning “Sneaker Champ” (there is such a thing), wore three different pairs. One was a black and purple Nike Kobe 1, which he had signed by Kobe Bryant.
A kaleidoscope of yellow ocher, Cinnamon Toast Crunch (part of Kyrie Irving’s cereal pack) and green Grinch took center stage. Amid this color burst, there were floral patterns from a Chinese line, a pair inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog and a shoe featuring a cartoon version of Rosa Parks on its heel — as if we needed more proof that the N.B.A. is much more fun than its stodgy pro counterparts.
Arguably the coolest line of kicks belongs to Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who will wear a different sneaker to every game. For the Nets’ game against the 76ers on Sunday, he will debut his Creed shoe, a nod to Rocky’s roots and the release of the movie “Creed II.”
Dinwiddie unveiled a media shoe, a sneaker close to our heart, in the Nets’ home opener against the Knicks. It thanked news organizations for their hard work. (Really!) It featured the logos of ESPN, NBA TV, Bleacher Report, The New York Post and The New York Times among others.
Against Detroit, he wore the shoes honoring Rosa Park. After the Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee died, Dinwiddie called an audible and helped design a tribute shoe. His brand, K8IROS, has honored other sports and entertainment legends, with sneakers inspired by Colin Kaepernick, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Allen Iverson and Jesse Owens, to be auctioned off for charity.
Signature shoes have long been a benchmark of success in the league, but Dinwiddie thinks what he’s doing — along with the loosened N.B.A. rules — may lead to even more fun on the court. “It would be dope to see everyone try their hand at it and express themselves the way they want to express themselves,” he said.
Source : https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/25/sports/nba-early-season-surprises.html